Kristina Õllek “Waters of Hypoxic & Once Tropic”

Standing in the sea, with rolling waves caressing our feet, carrying sand back and forth between the shoreline and the murky waters, we are standing in the deep past. A past that wasn’t divided into years, days, hours and minutes by calendars and clocks, but flowed in an endless multitemporal current. A past that witnessed abundant and long-gone life forms and materials that have become the fuel for the present and the catastrophes of the future.

Through photographic works and installations combining limestone, sea salt, clay and bioplastics, Õllek has created a bridge between the present moment and the biodiverse equatorial and tropical past of the local seabed. She has exposed the geological time of the Baltic Sea – the stories of which are narrated by crinoids, tabulata, trilobites, brachiopods, cephalopods, cyanobacteria and other fossilised ghosts of the ancient marine life. While we mostly associate cyanobacteria with the toxic blue-green algae that keeps us from having a swim in bodies of water, these bacteria have witnessed the billions of years of evolution and progress while remaining almost unchanged themselves.
The sea remembers.

Õllek is thinking with the sea: its past, present and future, marine life, bacteria and minerals, to tell the story of how cyanobacteria, while so integral to the oxygen cycle, have transformed into suffocating toxicity through intensive agriculture, fertiliser runoff and pollution, as well as due to the slow water exchange in the Baltic Sea and rising sea temperatures. This all leads to hypoxic zones where oxygen is depleted and biodiversity is lost. The slow violence, almost invisible to the eye, which first affects the weakest life forms, has escalated to the point where it can no longer be ignored.
The sea is suffocating.

The underlying research on marine ecology and anthropocentric influences, both in the context of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, is rooted in Õllek’s interest in the relationship between new technologies and extractivist thinking, including the controversial issue of deep-sea mining. The sea echoes humanity’s desires and fears: standing in the sea, we are simultaneously standing in the deep past of tropical waters once teeming with life and in the deep future of waters asphyxiated by toxic capitalism.

Annika Toots, September 2023